Kyoto is a favourite destination for tourists to Japan. There are about a million temples and shrines to see and explore. With so many options, it can be hard to decide what to do. To help you out, here’s an eventful 2-day Kyoto itinerary filled with a variety of sights and attractions.
This is a real example of a weekend I spend in Kyoto and covers the exact things I did over two days — so I know it’s doable. I started my day in Nagoya as well, so if you are already in Kyoto, it will be a little bit easier for you. Keep reading for your 2-day Kyoto itinerary!
BONUS: You can also do this itinerary as 1-day itinerary! That’s actually what I did. Keep reading for the detailed itinerary, then at the bottom of the post is an option for how to do it as a one-day thing.
Day 1 AM: Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine is a large Shinto shrine in the middle of Kyoto. The red of the roofs contrasts nicely with the white gravel field in front. You might even get a chance to see Shinto priestesses scurrying about, and if you’re lucky — a wedding. For an additional fee, I suggest visiting the garden behind the shrine. When I went, there were hardly any people in the garden, and you can freely take photos of the flowers, ponds, bridges, and tea houses. I recommend visiting Heian Shrine in the morning before the crowds arrive. It is Y600 extra to get into the garden.
To get to Heian Shrine from Kyoto Station, after taking a quick photo of Kyoto Tower, take the Raku 100 bus bound for Heian Shrine and get off at Okazaki Koen Bijutsukan/Heian-Jingu Shrine Station. It’s about 20 minutes and costs Y230 for the bus. You’ll know you’ve arrived because there is a monstrous red torii gate over the road. Just go under it and toward the shrine.
Day 1 PM: Kyoto Imperial Palace
Since Kyoto Imperial Palace is not far from Heian Shrine, I say why not give it a visit. I decided to walk there, since it seemed easier than trying to find the correct bus. Google told me the directions, and I started my 30-minute walk through the city. I passed a few small/medium-sized shrines along the way, though nothing fancy compared to the popular sites in Kyoto. They were small though, and I did appreciate the intimate setting rather than bustle at the main tourist destinations. There were also a lot of old streets with old shops on the way.
I arrived at Kyoto Imperial Palace at the southern wall. From the southern wall, I entered the palace grounds and walked down the looooong gravel roads. If you want my honest opinion, Kyoto Imperial Palace underwhelmed me. Twice. The idea of it is cool (it was the old official home of the emperor and where important emperor stuff went down), but everything in the outer palace was a bit plain. It’s all free though, so I say give it a try if you want to see a historical part of Japan. Go ahead and include it in your 2-day Kyoto itinerary. The buildings in the inner palace are cool. See:
Day 1 PM: Gion
After checking out Kyoto Imperial Palace, it’s probably time to head over to Gion. Gion is the part of Kyoto that’s famous for seeing Geisha. The touristy streets are walled by old wooden buildings with discreet entrances to who-knows-what-goes-on-inside. Tough there’s never any guarantee you will see a geisha or maiko, a young geisha. They are working, after all, and aren’t there to stop and pose for photos with you. The best times too see them are on the weekend as it is becoming dark. If you see one, consider yourself lucky. But be respectful — they’re not your tourist attractions.
To get to Gion from Kyoto Imperial Palace, take the Keihan Subway line from Marutamachi Station (nearest to the south-east corner of the palace grounds) to Gion-Shijo Station. The ride takes 7 minutes. There are other things to see in Gion though, like temples, shops, and things to eat, so it’s a good place to end the day.
Day 2 AM: Hozugawa River Boat Ride (drop off in Arashiyama)
Ok, disclaimer time. At the beginning of this article, I said I had done this exact itinerary, so I know it works. Weeeelll, I didn’t do it exactly the way I’m writing it. I was in Kyoto for a school thing, so my Saturday afternoon and morning on the second day was filled with that. Everything I did on the second day happened after around 1:00. But if I could do it all in that time, then of course it will work stretched out. And probably even be better. So I’m stretching my 2-day Kyoto itinerary to cover the full day and be more relaxing. Here goes…
The Hozugawa River boat ride is one of my new favourite things to do in Kyoto! I’ve been to Kyoto more times than I can count, but somehow I hadn’t heard of this river boat ride before. When I stumbled upon it, I was giddy with excitement. A couple hours cruising through the mountains on a paddle boat sounded lovely.
The Hozugawa River boat ride is fun and unique way to spend a few hours in Kyoto. Most people hop from temple to temple and hunt for geisha, but this was something special. Especially if you love nature and want to see something different. You get a completely different view of Japan. It is all green forested mountains, scraggly rocks, cormorants, and the sound of rushing water. Read my review of Hozugawa River boat ride for more information.
To do the Hozugawa River boat ride, go back to Kyoto Station. Change to the JR Sagano Line and get off at Kameoka Station. At Kameoka, walk a few minutes to the ticket office and boat loading station. There will be signs and flags you can follow, so you shouldn’t get lost. The boat ride costs ¥4100 and takes 1.5 to 2 hours. Make sure you call the tour office to make sure the boats are going that day and what times they are scheduled.
Day 2 PM: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and more
Not only is the river boat ride a great thing to add to your 2-day Kyoto itinerary, but it drops you off in Arashiyama where you can explore even more! My main destination was the Arashiyama bamboo grove.
When I did the river boat ride, I did the last boat ride at 3:30, which arrived at Arashiyama around 5:00. If you do it earlier in the day or in the morning, you will have even more time to hang around Arashiyama, where there is lots to see. I purposely planned to do the boat ride in the afternoon because I wanted to see the bamboo grove in the evening when it was not crowded. The bamboo grove doesn’t have closing hours either, so it made sense to put it at the end of the day. What’s the secret to visiting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove?
If you do the Hozugawa River boat ride in the morning or early afternoon, you’ll probably have time to visit Monkey Park, Tenryu-ji, check out all the shops, and relax by the river. You could even take a tour in one of the rickshaws.
Ending your 2-day Kyoto itinerary
At the end of your day in Arashiyama, when it’s dark and all the shops are closed, head back to Kyoto Station on the JR Sagano Line from Saga-Arashiyama Station. It costs about ¥200.
If you are staying in Kyoto, you are free to find a cool restaurant or head back to relax in our hotel after a full day of sightseeing. After my adventure, I went back home to Nagoya. So after taking a nighttime photo of Kyoto Tower and buying some souvenirs, I hopped back on the Bullet Train for Nagoya. Check out my post on how to get the most value with your Japan Rail Pass, and download the cheatsheet and sample itinerary here:
Don’t forget to pick up some yatsuhashi, Kyoto mochi souvenirs. They are triangles of soft mochi with different fillings inside.
How to do everything in one day:
When I did all these things, I did them on a Saturday morning before noon, and a Sunday after 1:00. So while you can easily stretch everything out for a more relaxing two days, it is possible to do ~most~ of it in one day. Hereare the things I did and how I would fit them into one day:
- 9:00 – Arrive Kyoto station. Photo of Kyoto Tower. Bus to Heian Shrine
- 9:30-11:00 – Explore Heian Shrine and garden
- 11:00 – Walk to Kyoto Imperial Palace
- 11:30 – Walk around Kyoto Imperial Palace and find lunch in a ramen or curry shop
- 1:00 – Train to Kyoto Station then to Kameoka Station
- 3:00-ish – Take last boat ride
- 5:00 – Arrive at Arashiyama. Walk along the bride. Explore streets and shops until dusk
- 6:00 – Go into the bamboo grove as it is getting dark. Take photos
- 6:30 – Back to Kyoto Station
- 8:00 – Find food, relax in hotel, or find geisha. End
And there you go! You could do this as one day of activities if you are staying in Kyoto, but it could also be done as a day trip from Nagoya or anywhere about an hour away. I spent around ¥7000-8000 on these activities and meals (in the 1-day itinerary version), minus the shinkansen.
2-day Kyoto itinerary (or 1-day!)
And this, in my opinion, is a great way to spend two, or one, days in Kyoto. Two days would let you relax a bit more, but one day is possible. The highlight of this itinerary is the Hozugawa River boat ride, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is tired of seeing temples and shrines. Don’t forget to download the Japan Rail Pass guide to getting the most value for your money. It includes a 14-day sample itinerary!